New Ancestor Discovery using Ancestry’s Genetic Communities

Ancestry recently released a new feature called Genetic Communities. It’s Big Data analytics capability that’s able to cluster millions of DNA testers into hundreds of distinct groups who descend from the same communities of ancestors from hundreds of years ago — such as Early Settlers of Eastern North Carolina or African Americans on the Mid-Atlantic Coast. The analytics can also trace migration patterns of these groups over time. Pretty powerful.

As far as I can tell, the feature was met with one of two reactions, depending on one’s genealogy user persona. Casual Ancestry users with perhaps limited knowledge of their own family history, were appreciative of what they were able to learn about their family without having to do much research. In that sense this new feature is quite amazing.

For more active users like myself, what we saw, for the most part, confirmed what we already knew, what we’d learned about our family through years and years of research. At least that means it accurate. My DNA cousin had the best reaction when I asked her what she thought of the feature,

I’m just going to say ‘NEAT’ and get back to my research.

I wanted to share an idea I have on how users might leverage Genetic Communities to potentially discover new ancestors.

Chose a Genetic Community to Analyze. Pick one you know least about. If you’ve tested multiple family members, you will have more communities to choose from. If you’ve tested older family members, their communities stretch farther back in time so pick one of theirs. My family is African American. My father’s family has deep roots in Charlotte, Mecklenburg County, North Carolina. But my paternal great aunt was added to a community called — Early [White] Settlers of Western North Carolina & Southern Illinois — which is described as follows,

1750 to 1775. English and German immigrants continued to settle the American colonies from Pennsylvania to the Carolinas. As these northern colonies became more crowded and land became scarce, many settlers followed the Great Wagon Road to western North Carolina.
Map visualization for Early Settlers of Western North Carolina & Southern Illinois Genetic Community.

Cool. Let’s check it out.

Review Associated Last Names. Navigate to the connection tab. Scroll down to associated last names section. Review the list of top 20 family names associated with your genetic community. Filter out common surnames like Smith, Jones or Williams. Chose family names that are both unique, and unfamiliar to you. From my great aunt’s list, I chose the surname Bost.

Top 20 names associate with the Early Settlers of Western North Carolina & Southern Illinois Genetic Community. Try using this list for new ancestor discovery.

Start Searching Your Match List. Navigate back to your DNA homepage. Pull up your DNA match list. Start searching your match list by plugging in last names from your genetic community. Look for a large number of resulting matches. Look for patterns within your matches. Use the shared match feature to see if your matches also match each other. If they do, start to look for common ancestors across those shared matches.

Search your DNA match list using the surnames associated with your Genetic Community.

A quick search of my aunt’s match list using the surname Bost revealed 2 pages of matches — 8 close 4th to 6th cousin matches who all descend from a woman named Matilda Othello Bost born in 1764 in Lincoln, NC. Using the shared match feature, I confirmed that many of these matches also matched each other. My aunt’s results also included over 60 distant 5th to 8th cousin matches, most of whom descended from Matilda’s father William Bost born around 1740 in Pennsylvania or her grandfather Johannes Wilhelm Bast who was born in Germany around 1720.

My aunts DNA matches were telling a story consistent with the one outlined in the Early Settlers of Western North Carolina & Southern Illinois Genetic Community. The Bosts had immigrated from Germany in the early 1700s to Pennsylvania then migrated to North Carolina in the mid to late 1700s in pursuit of land grants and new opportunities.

Determine How Discovered Ancestors Might Fit in Your Tree. Matilda Bost would go on to marry John Smyre, the son of German immigrants, in 1785 in Lincoln, NC. They would go on to have 9 children and 6 were sons. 5 of their sons were slave owners. One would go on to father my 3rd great grandfather — James Henry Johnson — with an enslaved woman on the Smyre plantation.

1789 North Carolina Land Grant file for my 5th great grandfather John Smyre

Hopefully this blog offers tricks that help some users unlock additional utility from Genetic Communities. Thank you Ancestry for this new tool and I look forward to seeing where you take it in the future.